Our first Opinionated Editorial in harvest’s fifth issue has generated some Editorial Opinions. If you’d like to join the debate, please take a read of Davina Bell’s piece on why the current generation of writers is so often accused of navel gazing.
You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it. Young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers.
–Ted Genoways, Mother Jones
A lot has been said about Ted Genoways’s column in Mother Jones about the death of literary magazines (impending!) and the state of literature in general (dire!).
As an editor of a literary magazine, I read the above quote with both intrigue and amusement. At harvest, we are lucky to have published many young writers whose work is raw, internal and reflective in a way that may well cause Ted to have some kind of cardiac incident – and we’ve loved every intelligent and sensitive word.
But conversely, and curiously, as a very occasional writer of fiction, I took in Ted’s words with a sense of awed shame. It was as I’d always suspected – my prose was self-indulgent, thinly veiled autobiography with no wider import or appeal. Unreadable pap! With lashings of mournful analysis. Ted was right – I epitomised all that ails modern literature, and swore off writing altogether until blessed with the ability to crystallise the wrecked and lovely world into cogent, poignant prose.
Yet, as time wore on, it dawned on me that Ted had failed to consider just why it might be that these precious snowflakes are plucking ideas from their navels and not trying to ‘write about big issues’, as he suggests. Why it is that, as he despairs, so many more people are choosing to take writing courses in the first place. And if Ted is right, if writers really have ‘become less and less interested in reaching out to readers’, why, then, are they writing?
One could conclude that instantaneous access to knowledge, science, media and porn has somewhat glass-ceilinged our imaginations, hence the quarrying of our own lives to bulk up our narratives. And maybe there’s something in that. Personal computers, the indulgence of self-expression by baby-boomer parents, a lack of career direction in an age of options – these are all easy solutions with sprinklings of merit. But an ‘outward glance’ at the broader context inspires just what Ted would hate most: a spot of mournful analysis.
The truth is, no previous generation has had such instant and broad-ranging access to the back-catalogue of man’s cruelty and mistakes. This is to take nothing away from the experiences of the Allies who walked in to Auschwitz post-D-day, or the Vietnam vets scalded by Agent Orange and the scorn of their countrymen. It’s just that, without training, briefing or context, without knowing how to click together a rifle or having had our hair shorn short, we can witness decapitations and war crimes in real time while eating a cheese and ham toasty.
While our brains were not yet hardened, we watched a plane being flown into a building over and over, until it meant nothing and everything. In our school books, we saw the iconic Vietnamese girl run burning down the street with her skin peeling off. But we’ve also seen American soldiers – peacekeepers of the free world – trailing grown men around on leads and laughing. We witnessed Saddam’s execution, and it didn’t feel as good as we expected. Rows of memorial tombstones, like fields of mouthless teeth, conjure Hollywood memories, not friends loved and lost. Cacophonous technology plays like a soundtrack around us, and the world is screened through screens, often as intangible as an mp3.
To boot (!) we are being handed the soggy leftovers of a steaming earth, and our attempts to salvage it feel, for the most part, like pushing our fingertips against a containership, trying to change its course.
Perhaps the stench of the world wouldn’t be as strong if we had been out and about in it. But while travel has never been easier, no generation has been so shut away. While our parents played in the streets and camped in fields, slept on beaches and hitch-hiked with abandon, they grew up to fear paedophiles, strangers, gangs, drunk-drivers, free time, and underachievement. The result? A subsequent generation weaned on television, scheduled activities and apprehension, with a penchant for box sets; heady with nostalgia for times we never knew and desensitised to the point of cynicism.
Against this backdrop, more young people are studying writing than ever before – and blogging, and tweeting, and reviewing. Perhaps to sift the world into something softer, perhaps to forget it altogether.
But what is there to forget? How many creative writing students have actually witnessed brutality and violence first-hand, experienced flint on flesh or felt the heat of jellied air, post bombing? Gruel, plague, carbolic soap, chamber pots, rationing – there is so much we have been spared. And yet our ‘navel gazing’ does have a sadness to it – the ‘chorus of melancholy’ that Zadie Smith observed in her contemporaries, the ‘kind of lostness’ identified by the late David Foster Wallace, who embodies this literary aching. How dare we knit sad narratives with our shiny, coddled lives?
It’s not as if we’re blind to our good fortune, which is itself a source of shame. Guilt laces the choices we make daily: to choose MasterChef over stories of eye flies and melon stomachs, to walk past extroverted charity collectors with our eyes on our shoes. It has never been easier to ignore through distraction, change course, fall short, self-loathe. In the place of blissful ignorance are loaded comparisons and unreachable benchmarks.
Maybe it is these feelings that lead us to try to make sense of our lives by leaking words, writing ourselves into dolls that we move around the little houses of our own fiction and metafiction.
Disaffection, dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement, apathy, futility, lack of control – these are by no means new motivations to dive into literature, not at all. ‘You are all a lost generation,’ said Gertrude Stein, and it is doubtful that there has been a generation before or since hers that hasn’t felt itself a clanging gong.
Yet it is surely no coincidence that the hunger to write has mushroomed so virally in a world where friends, networks, conversations and communities exist largely as grouped pixels, and we seem to bob around alone, for the most part, in a soup of information.
Which gets me thinking in ways that Ted probably wouldn’t approve of… Perhaps this is our protest movement, or summer of Gatsby-style hedonism – our release; the way we reach out and kick up. For our generation, there have been no D-day celebrations. No Whitlam to validate and harness our pulsing youth, no national catharsis or vocalised grief, save for the mourning of the world’s Michael Jacksons.
And far from shuffling us together neatly like playing cards, our attempts at patriotism are confused and divisive, our nationalism empty and menacing (cue the Cronulla riots).We have neither the comfort of religion nor the thrill of counter-culture atheism to fuel us.
Our opinions can be downloaded, read, watched and listened to by everyone instantly – and heard by no one. In a world where 12 million people can march on London to protest a war to no effect, it’s not hard to trace our desperation to record ourselves, if only to confirm that we have voices, like the mumblings of apartment-dwellers who live alone.
So in the little pockets of time we claim for ourselves to write, forgive us for not honing in on the ‘big issues’ we have never experienced yet have lived through; the ever-growing list of things we know both too much and too little about to act or care sufficiently.
Pardon us for filtering out the unimaginable suffering we watch on live broadcasts with a sickening compulsion and can replay on YouTube. In the chasm between vacuous celebrity and the realities of insidious fundamentalism, perhaps it is only our own lives, logged hourly and picked over, that we can clutch on to for purpose, meaning and creative inspiration, in order to tune out the loud, fast world.
For now, might we be excused our navel gazing? When you have seen men glide down from burning towers on slipstreams of hate, perhaps it’s not too big a leap to conclude that one’s navel is the only safe place to be looking.
And to dear Ted, we are the wrecked and lovely world. It’s there in our writing if you can bring yourself to read it, and while it may not be ‘sterling’ enough for you, it’s as real as the Iraq war, and often as heartbreaking.
With kind regards, one precious snowflake